By age 4, a child is aware of his effect on others. He measures himself against the world around him and wants to be like the adults he admires. He is ready to begin learning about table manners.

They won’t come all at once. Patience, practice, encouragement and repetition will help him master them. But he’ll also need you to model table manners and healthy eating habits.

Notice how your modeling affects his mealtime behavior. He begins to hold a fork like his father or spear a slippery vegetable like his mother. He may even try to cut his meat.

None of this is easy. The meat slips off his plate. The cost of failure makes him regress. Then he teases. He spills his milk. He pushes his vegetables off his plate. He falls apart. But he has tried to live up to his parents.

Next time, he’ll get even further in identifying with them. Or he’ll find another way. An older sibling can become a model. If an older brother plays at the table, so will he. If a brother or sister eats green and yellow vegetables, he may too. If his siblings display even a semblance of table manners, so will he.

Commend him for his efforts. Rather than picking on what he doesn’t do, emphasize what he does do. Offer to cut up his food, but be prepared and respectful if he wants to manage it for himself. If he can’t, cut it up in the kitchen next time.

Age 4 is also a time when rebellion can take over. “No milk — just juice.” “I’ll wait for dessert.” Only green vegetables — or no vegetables.

A 4- or 5-year old is likely to use pickiness to establish his independence or to play out his conflicts. Expect this behavior and don’t negotiate with him except to acknowledge the source of his refusal: “You seem like you’ve really made up your mind about those green beans. There’ll be other things to try tomorrow.”

Keeping the peace at the table

1. Ignore the child’s bid for a struggle as much as possible. If he continues to dominate the family’s time together, maybe it’s time for him to be excused from the table — until the next meal. Being ignored may be the most effective discipline for a child who is setting up a struggle over food.

2. Hold your line on the food choices. “Juice in the morning, milk at every meal.”

3. Keep junk food out of the house. “But other kids have it” is no excuse for junk food. Stand your ground and answer simply, “That’s fine. You can try all that stuff when you visit.” It’s pointless to make a fuss about an occasional taste of junk food at a friend’s house — the more you make of it, the more appealing it becomes for your child.

He can eventually learn to be proud of his healthy choices and sophisticated tastes. Most of all, he will learn to appreciate the foods that are present in his home, on his kitchen table — the foods that he sees his parents eat.

4. Decide ahead of time how you will handle dessert. If dessert is only for children who have “finished” eating, food becomes a reward for good behavior instead of a source of nutrition and pleasure.

It’s easier to maintain healthy attitudes toward food and to avoid struggles if everyone has dessert when it is “dessert time.” Desserts come after meals and are just that — the conclusion of a meal, not a reward.

5. Remember that food can easily lose its value compared with the child’s need to establish himself. At this age, his main struggle is to stand his ground and save face. Your response needs to respect that as his most important goal.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to:

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